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Knicks' tough schedule means likelihood of play-in tournament for NBA playoffs

Head coach Tom Thibodeau of the Knicks during

Head coach Tom Thibodeau of the Knicks during the third quarter against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center on Monday, Mar. 15, 2021. Credit: Jim McIsaac

The good news for the Knicks is that it will be difficult, even as they have been sliding of late, to fall out of the postseason picture. But the bad news is that after sitting in fourth place ahead of these recent struggles they are heading toward the NBA’s play-in tournament.

That’s certainly not the worst thing, not for a franchise that has been out of the playoffs since 2013 and entered the season with few observers predicting anything close to a playoff spot for the team. Even last season when the season was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Knicks found themselves not only out of the playoffs but not even invited to the bubble restart in Orlando.

Now, the schedule is working against them, 21 of their final 22 games — starting with Monday’s loss to the Nets, a loss Wednesday in Boston and Friday’s win over Memphis — are against teams currently in the playoff picture. The condensed schedule has limited practice time for Tom Thibodeau and his team, a blow to a coach who repeats his mantra over and over that the magic is in the work. Thibodeau has said they have settled for film work and mostly individual work, resting the high minutes' players and focusing on recovery and treatment. Morning walk-throughs have turned into the studious preparation time Thibodeau covets.

The one plus right now with the team struggling is that starting with Friday’s revitalizing overtime win over Memphis the Knicks were home for nine of 11 games. The counter to that is that the stretch is followed by a road trip of six games in 10 nights. They then finish off the regular season with three home games.

"I think you’re heading down the stretch," Thibodeau said. "The important thing — you try to build that habit from the start of the season. And that’s the trap that you fall into — you start looking ahead like that.

"I think every team right now is facing the challenge of looking at a condensed schedule. So how do you maximize that time? Obviously, the added benefit of being home is there’s less travel involved. Our schedule is very unusual in the sense that the travel that we do have, oftentimes we’re walking back into an early start game or something like that. So being ready to play and understanding what goes into each and every game is critical at this point in the season."

The reality of the Knicks current situation is that the most likely scenario puts them in the play-in tournament. If they finish seventh or eighth they would play a game for the seventh seed, with the loser facing the winner of the ninth and 10th-place finishers for the eighth seed. The consolation prize is that no matter where they finish from seven to 10, they would be in the NBA Draft Lottery if they fell out of the playoffs.

Would it be a best-case scenario, to get out of the dysfunctional sludge the franchise had been operating in and even getting a brief playoff test before taking their chances in the lottery? Is that even better than facing the Nets, Bucks or 76ers in a first-round playoff series?

The Knicks don’t sound like they’re conceding that and perhaps Friday’s win provided a little bit of proof that they don’t quit. With five losses in six games and just a miserable effort early, they came back in the final six minutes, forced overtime and provided a wake-up call that maybe this isn’t just for show.

"We’re always right there with either winning or losing a tough one," Taj Gibson said late Friday night. "And we've been in some really strong dogfights lately and the ball kind of doesn't roll our way. It didn’t roll our way the last couple of games. But one thing about Thibs, he just says, stay focused, block the noise out. Come together even tighter as a family and that’s what we’ve been doing.

"A team that fights back believes in each other. Understanding the work ethic that they put in day to day. We work, really work extremely hard, day to day. It’s really a family. The culture is really a family. We understand the stakes and everybody understands that we're going to need everybody, and we always believe.

"Now I understand we got a lot of odds going against us down our young seven-foot big man, a lot of guys banged up," he added. "You can name so many different obstacles. But that’s part of the NBA, just got to stay the course, believe in one another, block out the outside noise, put more into every night. That's what we've been doing. Everybody's always coming back at night, everybody's watching the film. We just circling the wagons and believing in each other . . . We're going to learn, but as long as we play hard we have a chance to come back and win."

That doesn’t make the schedule any easier. It doesn’t make the roster any more competitive with the elite teams in the NBA. But it might mean that they are in this to play to the finish.

"It’s great if we can build off this, build our momentum keep going," RJ Barrett said. "We’ve got a couple more games at home, take advantage of that, keep getting back on the right track."

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